The weight of a pessimistic city and its once-promising NFL playoff aspirations now rest on the shoulders of the Philadelphia Eagles’ unexpected leader. Nick Foles wasn’t supposed to be in this position, not when the season had reached such a critical juncture. He was supposed to be waiting in the wings in case he was ever needed. But in truth, no one — certainly not the Eagles — thought he’d be a factor.
And now, Philadelphia’s status as a surefire Super Bowl contender is at the mercy of an unreliable quarterback who has started only three games this season. And the coaching staff that deemed Foles nothing more than a serviceable backup to its rising star, Carson Wentz, now wants its fans and its players to believe Foles is more than capable of seeing this process through.
“My message to Nick is: Listen, we have a great opportunity. Let’s go be Nick. Let’s go play. Let’s go execute the offense,” Coach Doug Pederson said in advance of their NFC divisional-round playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. “[If the] opportunity’s there, rip it.”
With Wentz, the second overall pick in the 2016 draft, the Eagles were 11-2 and the clear NFC favorite to reach Super Bowl LII. But a torn knee ligament suffered in Week 14 against the Los Angeles Rams cut short Wentz’s Pro Bowl season, sent Philly fans spiraling into despair and left the Eagles scrambling to make do with Foles.
But the backup-turned-starter insisted he’s more than ready.
“When I play my best, I just go out there and play,” Foles said this week, adding that the key to his success lies in “just trusting my instinct.”
But the top-seeded Eagles need Foles to do more than “just go out there and play.” They need him to actually make plays, something he’s capable of doing, but has not done consistently.
Since replacing Wentz in the third quarter of their 43-35 win over the Rams, Foles is 2-1 as their starter but averaging only 4.96 yards per pass attempt and completing 54.6 percent of his passes over the past four games. Perhaps more disheartening for fans is the fact that Foles last started a playoff game in 2013 (a 26-24 loss to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC wild-card game).
Meanwhile, the Falcons will counter with quarterback Matt Ryan, who has the third-best career postseason passer rating in NFL history (102.4) and guided the franchise to its second Super Bowl appearance last season.
Pederson and his staff spent the past two weeks reviewing film of Foles’s past seasons — including his Pro Bowl year in 2013 — in hopes of unleashing the best version of him at the most opportune time.
Foles’s familiarity with the system can’t entirely make up for a lack of meaningful reps. But the Eagles — the No. 1 seed in the NFC for the first time since 2004 — don’t have the luxury of time.
So the 28-year-old will have to rely on what he knows and what he feels most comfortable doing against a Falcons defense that has allowed 13 points or fewer over their past two games and 17 points or fewer in three of their past five contests.
Asked about having time to self-scout, Foles said: “You realize, ‘Hey, just go out there and play.’ Maybe I wasn’t doing that as much those games. It’s just as simple as that. Sometimes the hardest things are just the simple things. Basically get out of your own head and go play the game you know how to play.”
Foles has already proved he can sling it, evidenced by the 27 touchdowns against two interceptions he threw in 2013 when Chip Kelly was the Eagles’ coach. But with Foles, good games inevitably give way to subpar showings.
The quarterback who tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes in a November 2013 game against the Oakland Raiders also has a 64.9 QB rating with 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in 20 career losses.
But Foles’s track record of inconsistency won’t prevent the Eagles from stretching the field Saturday.
“As much as we and everybody else wants to run the football, you have to be able to stay aggressive in the pass game and get the ball down the field,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “Nick has proven that over the length and entirety of his career. He not only can get the ball downfield, he can do so very well. … He’s aggressive in his mind-set, as aggressive a guy as I’ve been around.”
In his six-year career, Foles served as Michael Vick’s backup (in his first stint with the Eagles), was traded to the St. Louis Rams for Sam Bradford in March 2015 and was benched in favor of Case Keenum during his 2015 season with the Rams. Two years later, he re-signed with Philadelphia to be Wentz’s backup.
But Foles insists his confidence has never wavered. And his coaches, at least publicly, say they believe in him just as strongly.
“There’s enough substance behind his career that merits having confidence,” Reich said. “I’ve seen the best quarterbacks in the world have a bad game or two in a row. I mean, the best. It happens.”
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